Ulster can use Euro pain to spark life into league bid, insists Kiss
With the Guinness PRO12 now Ulster's only prospect of silverware, Director of Rugby Les Kiss has stressed the need to pick up as many points as possible over the next six weeks.
The province currently have seven players on Ireland duty for the Six Nations but with or without their Test stars must make up ground domestically during a block of winnable fixtures.
Currently sixth in the league, they take on Benetton Treviso - the Italians who haven't won since last February - at the Stadio Monigo on Saturday (5pm), before a run of three consecutive home games against Newport, Glasgow and Scarlets.
A trip to Cardiff and the visit of Zebre round out the slate before the international contingent return and Kiss knows the fixtures will likely define the remainder of the season.
"It's a tough six weeks for all the teams in the top eight really," said the Australian. "It's a tight competition. I think Glasgow have a couple of games up their sleeve and a couple of teams, us included, have one. That'll all even out over the next six or seven weeks.
"By the end of that period, we'll know where we are but halfway through it'll be getting tetchy if you're not putting one or two wins together.
"Dropping one of the three, you're still in the hunt but anything further then you're starting to fall by the wayside.
"It is very tight, there's 30 points available, and we've got to get as many as we can. You can position yourself into a nice place for the home stretch.
"I've set some targets myself, privately, but I set some earlier in the season and we didn't achieve them. I'm not a massive goal setter as such but you want to have a target that drives you and keeps you focused.
"If you're looking at the 30 points (available), we've got four home games because we played away from home so much earlier, so we'd want a more than positive return. It's something we can expect of ourselves."
Ulster's European campaign came to an abrupt end at the pool stage last weekend despite a 56-3 win over Oyonnax but Kiss has since spoken of his excitement regarding the direction the province is heading.
The former Ireland assistant praised the work of manager Bryn Cunningham in retaining the team's young internationals - Craig Gilroy has already rebuffed offers from elsewhere to re-sign with Ulster and official confirmation that Luke Marshall has followed suit is expected soon - while telling fans to "watch this space" for new signings, one of which will be a non-Irish qualified back-row replacement for the departing Nick Williams.
For now, however, Kiss wants to see evidence over the next two months that his side have learned from their European disappointment.
"I think you take lessons from any campaign and we've tried to pull one or two from what happened in the Champions Cup," he added. "Hopefully we're good enough to take those and step forward positively.
"It's bizarre when you beat the French teams home and away and still don't nail it. That's why I do regret the Saracens games, one point out of one of them would have been great, and it was disappointing not to get the bonus point in the Oyonnax away game. We hope we've taken the right lessons.
"We've got seven in the national team that won't be there, but the players who will step into the breach know how it felt not to get there too so hopefully we take that hurt and channel it into some really good, solid rugby."
While Ulster's Champions Cup season is over, one aspect of their European campaign lingers on.
England and Saracens winger Chris Ashton has had the date of his appeal for making contact with Marshall's eye or eye area during the Pool 1 clash on January 16 set for Wednesday.
The former league star has been banned for 10 weeks for the incident - meaning he would miss the entire Six Nations - but hopes to have the punishment reduced by an independent appeal committee consisting of Lorne Crerar (Scotland), chairman Rod McKenzie (Scotland) and Roger Morris (Wales) in London.
"He's got every right to appeal," said Kiss. "That's the process that's there. The incident happened. It was dealt with by the citing commissioner.
"They found a case to answer, he's had to answer it and now he has the right to appeal. I think if that always exists it's good."